The recent conference of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was held on July 15-16, 2021 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. About 250 participants and 40 delegates from 50 countries and 30 world-renowned organizations were part of this conference. This meeting of SCO was attended by Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan Imran Khan, President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani, President of the Republic of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev, foreign ministers of Central Asian and South Asian countries, foreign states, executive heads of regional and international organizations, global financial companies, and renowned research and analytical corporations.
The heads of Pakistan and Afghanistan were invited to the conference as both countries are strategically very important and serve as a link between Central and South Asia along with providing the route to ports to the landlocked Central Asian countries. Along with the Uzbek foreign minister, External Affairs Minister of India S Jaishankar moderated the session who was also the first speaker of the plenary session. The conference of SCO was held with the vision of highlighting the challenges and opportunities associated with regional connectivity in the context of Central and South Asian countries. Although the conference included various important thematic sessions such as economy, transport, communication, trade, cultural and humanitarian cooperation, Afghanistan’s security situation and the outcomes of the SCO contact group meeting in Dushanbe dominated the overall conference.
The SCO meeting has basically contributed to two issues- the regional connectivity, peace and stability in Afghanistan. The Secretary-General SCO in his speech considered Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an important platform that provides an opportunity for the region to develop optimal connectivity. He emphasized that trade, economic growth, and progress are associated with the building of optimal transport routes. He highlighted the importance of building some railway routes such as Mazar-i-Sharif – Peshawar, Mazar-i-Sharif – Herat, and Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan-China. He spotlighted that these railway tracks would not only provide a link between the North-South and East-West region but also give Afghanistan and other landlocked Central Asian countries access to ports thereby facilitating regional trade and economic activities. The Secretary-General also mentioned the positive role of the SCO meeting for the implementation of important projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan Imran Khan also highlighted the importance of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) considering it as the flagship project of BRI.
The SCO meeting also recognized the importance of regional trade and infrastructural development. The development on infrastructure will help to produce and supply energy among the regional countries. The Secretary General Norov has proposed to expand Afghanistan’s export potential, implementation of energy projects like CASA-1000 and TAPI pipeline and transport corridors.
In addition to the connectivity in terms of infrastructure, the SCO meeting-2021 provided an opportunity to the government representatives of the countries, which do not generally experience deep ties, to meet each other and exchange their views thereupon facilitating the region’s stability. For instance, the foreign ministers of China and India met and conveyed their concerns about the bilateral agreements regarding the Line of Actual Control (LAC) (News18 2021). Prime Ministers of Pakistan and Uzbekistan also exchanged their views and reaffirmed the bilateral cooperation in different sectors like tourism, railways, military expertise, and vocational training. Moreover, $500 Million worth of deals were signed by Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan Imran Khan with Uzbekistan (PMO Pakistan 2021; Voice of America 2021).
However, the start of the SCO session was marked with an open spat between the Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan Imran Khan, and the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. When President Ashraf Ghani accused Pakistan of allowing 10,000 Jihadis to Afghanistan, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan responded by saying that Pakistan had done every effort to bring the Taliban to the dialogue table.
Peace and Stability in Afghanistan
Even though Afghanistan is only an observer state at SCO, still it is important to note that initially SCO was created with the intention of dealing with the possible threats to the regional stability arising from destabilized Afghanistan. However, the recent withdrawal of US and NATO forces made the condition of Afghanistan the most concerning issue for the whole region. Therefore, it was of no surprise to learn that the stability and peace of Afghanistan was the most dominant theme at the SCO in the latest meeting. To restore peace and stability in Afghanistan, the SCO meeting provided a platform for joint statement and five proposals by the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group: Joint Statement
In his speech, the Secretary-General SCO recalled the meeting of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group that was held on July 14, 2021, in Dushanbe in which the foreign ministers of all the member states and other important regional and international stakeholders participated. All the foreign ministers pledged that they advocate the development of independent Afghanistan; realize the importance of peace in Afghanistan for regional security, and are convinced by the fact that this crucial time is marked by a need for assistance to the Afghan people to regain and restore the peace process. All the neighbors showed their keen interest in the development of peace in Afghanistan while respecting the culture and traditions of the Afghan people. It was reassured that all the states respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of Afghanistan in accordance with the principles of the UN charter.
The international organizations such as the UN, especially the UN regional center for Preventive Diplomacy, UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, and the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General were encouraged to play a pivotal role in the conflict of Afghanistan to facilitate the peace process. Inter-Afghan peace talks were applauded and the importance of including the voice of all the ethnic groups was emphasized. All the member states, at the end of the joint statement, showed their willingness to keep deep ties with Afghanistan and provide support to the fighting country by increasing the participation of Afghanistan as an observer at the SCO.
Five Proposals by the Chinese Foreign Minister
At the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group meeting, the foreign minister of China Wang Yi also introduced five proposals to address the law and order situation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of NATO forces. First, China accused that the United States initiated this conflict in Afghanistan, therefore, the US cannot simply walk away from the deteriorating situation in the country. In the second proposal, the Chinese foreign minister said that the SCO should utilize all the potential of the anti-terrorism institutions to stop the resurgence of terrorism in Afghanistan. In the third proposal, the Chinese foreign minister highlighted the importance of joint efforts of the region to restore the reconciliation process in Afghanistan. In the fourth proposal, the SCO was urged to actively participate and strengthen the multilateral coordination with Afghanistan that could help Afghanistan fight against terrorism and continue as a friendly neighbor with other countries pursuing as a moderate Muslim country. Finally, China urged the SCO to play its role towards reconstruction and peace in Afghanistan. The cooperation in different fields such as public health, trade, and economy should be maximized that could help Afghanistan to achieve sustainable development.
The SCO meeting-2021 underscored some concrete outcomes and desired to find positive way forward. The meeting highlighted the challenges that it is facing to restore peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan highlighted the potential of CPEC in regional connectivity and signed $500 million worth of projects with Uzbekistan. The foreign ministers of India and China conveyed their concerns to each other regarding the tensions at LAC. The SCO reaffirmed its effective role to restore the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan. The construction of some important railway tracks was also discussed that would provide a new transport route to the Central Asian countries to enter South Asia and access the ports. Undoubtedly, this will bring the regional connectivity and strong bonding in the region. After the withdrawal of the US and NATO forces from Afghanistan, there is a possibility for Afghanistan to get membership status from the SCO.
The reaction of the US
The US appears to be unhappy about the outcomes of the meeting particularly the issue of Afghan crisis. It echoes observation of the Chairman of Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington Frederick Starr that some countries like Iran, Russia, and China are exploiting the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan. The US emphasizes that the stability in Afghanistan should spur from the inside not from the outside powers. And there is no connectivity without stability as infrastructure could only be built if there is peace in the region. However, the US representatives at the international conference commended the efforts of Tashkent.
The SCO has observed its 20th anniversary with the Tashkent meeting. About more than 40 countries and high-level delegates participated from different international organizations. The main priority of this conference was to strengthen the regional connectivity that could generate economic activity and strengthen the people-to-people ties. However, at the heart of this conference was the issue of conflict-worn Afghanistan. It was noted that regional connectivity was only feasible with a more stable and peaceful Afghanistan. All the member nations and observers reaffirmed to expand the bilateral ties and continue their support to help achieve stability in an Independent and Sovereign Afghanistan. While they have committed to engage in Afghanistan in a spirit of multilateral cooperation, Sino-American rift becomes visible in the conference which will determine the future of effectiveness of the SCO as a multilateral platform.
*MD Pathik Hasan is a Dhaka based NGO worker, freelance writer